Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas Travels

Christmas Eve, 2009:

I am currently riding on a hundred-year-old train in the MiddleOfNowhere Poland, on the receiving end of strange looks delivered by two curious older Polish women probably wondering what in the world I’m doing here. I don’t blame them: I find myself wondering the same thing. It was an unfortunate (but not altogether surprising) combination of events that led me to this point. It all started three days ago when I left Torino….

Despite the fact that I often tell people that I love traveling, it would actually be more accurate to say that I love being in different cultures and meeting people from around the world. Unfortunately the actual traveling part of this compulsion is a chore at best and at its worst is like the seventh circle of hell. Traveling in Italy never fails to lean towards the latter tendency, and traveling during Christmas, I have discovered, is the worst possible time to attempt it. Not that I hold anything against Italy: I’m sure that every airport around the world is no picnic during the week before Christmas. The constant chaos and mob tendencies of Italy just exacerbate an already difficult situation. Here is the extended story of my three-day endeavor to get to Lodz, Poland from Torino:

Monday, December 21, 2009:

Well, I knew going into it that today would be a shitshow, and I was not disappointed. After much deliberation, I decided to stay at a hostel in Bergamo the night before my early flight to Warsaw so as not to pull another Barcelona (where I fell asleep at the airport and missed my flight by minutes). It would have been too close of a call to take the first train out of Torino in the morning, so I did the responsible thing and stayed near to the airport the night before. Was I rewarded for that? Quite the opposite. I have concluded that I must have done something terrible in a past life to have earned my current stretch of luck.

I woke up early today (9am) in order to catch the 11am train; the next train was 3 hours later, and I figured that if I was going to pay for a hostel that I might as well see the town a bit. So naturally when I got to the train station I sat around and waited for 45 minutes, watching the sign move from “10 minuti in ritardo” to 20, 30, then finally when it switched to 40 minutes late I gave up and went home. At that point I wouldn’t have made the connection anyway, so why should I wait around in Milano for an extra two hours when I could be making a pie at home? No good reason, I decided, and headed back to my casa dolce casa. There I whipped out the quickest pumpkin pie ever made, but still it wasn’t quite done when I had to leave for my next train. Luckily Olga was home, so I relied on her to take the pie out…I hope she remembered, and that our apartment won’t be a charred black mess when we get back. That girl is just as blonde as me, which is no easy feat.

Anyway, to my surprise the 2:00 train was actually on time, so I hopped on and set off for Bergamo. I was a bit nervous to see that there was a blizzard raging outside the entire train ride, but I soon forgot about the potential consequences and just enjoyed watching the snow fall. It wasn’t until I stepped into the middle of the storm at Bergamo that I realized just how much of a pain in the ass this would prove to be.

Don’t you just love how instructions can look so simple and easy online, but then when you go to carry them out everything just falls to crap? This NEVER fails to happen to me. I’ll write down a set of clear, straightforward instructions only to find that 15 unanticipated dilemmas crop up in the live show. Today there were numerous complications to liven up my trip to Bergamo. As it was 5pm and getting dark when I got into town, I decided to head straight for the hostel and to skip the sightseeing. Any attempt would have been a joke anyway, as the only “sights” that I could see were occasional Christmas lights through the sheet of snow and sleet.

I was proud of myself for finding Bergamo’s Porta Nuova (is there one in every Italian city?) in the storm. For once my dubious directional abilities came through. I impressed myself further by locating the bus stop for Bus #6, which would take me to the hostel per my online instructions. However, after waiting there for around an hour with no sign of bus #6 anywhere, I gave up and went back to the train station to ask for directions (or to hunt down a taxi, whichever came first). When I finally trudged my way back to the information booth it had just closed (typical), but there were still two people standing outside smoking. So I begged for their help, asking where I could find a taxi, and if they knew what happened with the bus. They just laughed at me (in what I’d like to think was a sympathetic way, but I know better) and said that since it was snowing the buses were all delayed, so I would just have to wait. They pointed me towards the taxi stand as an afterthought. I feel that here it should be noted that there were NO taxis at that stand for my entire sojourn in Bergamo. I don’t even know why they put the sign up, other than to entertain the locals when unsuspecting tourists line up by it.

So back to the bus stop I went, fighting sheets of ice-cold snow the entire time. I was beginning to have very violent feelings towards this little town that I had once thought was so cute. Luckily there was a covered waiting area where other unfortunate souls such as myself were huddled for warmth. Over the next two hours I made quite a few friends (or rather, fellow commiserators waiting for #6). We kept seeing the other bus numbers go by (bus #11 in particular), but ours never came. Finally a short official-looking man in a blue metro suit came over and asked which bus we were all waiting for. “Sei!” we all shouted in unison. Then a very peculiar thing happened: he went over to a bus that had been out of service, talked to the driver, and within five minutes the bus pulled up, sporting the joyous #6 sign across the front. I couldn’t believe it; I guess you just have to be loud in order to get a bus in this country. So we piled in, and I managed to snag a seat in the front. Unfortunately the fun wasn’t over: the traffic was so bad that we were repeatedly passed by people walking down the street. Pretty soon my Italian comrades got fed up and debated loudly whether or not to get off and walk from here. It was at that point that the busdriver decided to inform us that he would not be able to make it up the hill to where, ironically enough, I needed to go. Luckily some of my newfound friends gave me instructions, and I joined forces with an Italian ragazzo that was also heading for the hostel. Our new route took us up at least 100 stairs, which would normally be no problem but proved tricky given that they were covered with six inches of snow.

Despite a few close calls, I made it all the way up without a concussion. Of course I did manage to run into a snow-laden branch and coat myself with even more snow, but that’s normal. It’s now 9pm, roughly four hours after arriving in Bergamo, and I have finally made it into the hostel. Unfortunately I have to get right up and leave it bright and early tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009:

Gawd, I just LOVE this country! And by love I really mean hate with a fiery passion. If the damned airport wasn’t shut down I’d hop the next flight back to the US, but that is the root of my whole current problem. Let me start at the beginning:

I woke up at 6am, an hour I had deemed to be more than early enough for me to make my 8:50 flight. The hostel was only 7 km from the airport, so I didn’t think it would take very long. You would think that I would have taken a lesson away from my 4-hour commute last night, but nope! I remained optimistic, as well as unwilling to get up any earlier than my 6am cutoff. I briefly checked the Wizzair website to make sure that my flight wasn’t delayed, but to my relief it said nothing about any problems in the Bergamo airport. I had checked the status last night as well, and there were no notifications of any delays. So I set off for Operation: Poland.

After trudging down the perilous stairs, almost dying and getting soaked through with melted snow in the process, I still had to wait about a half an hour at the bus stop. Come to think of it, I probably ran into the very same snow-laden branch that attacked me last night. And to think I used to actually like the stuff. At the bus stop I asked the man and woman waiting with me if I should just walk it, but they just laughed incredulously (I get that reaction a lot here, I’ve noticed), and told me it would take at least an hour to go “a piedi.” Just as I was about to do it anyway, the bus pulled up. It’s almost like this place is testing me to see how much it can get away with before I snap, then it gives in right at the breaking point, only so that it can torture me again and again.

Once on the first bus I started to allow myself to feel cautiously hopeful. I only had to catch one more bus to get to the airport, which comes by the train station every 20 minutes, so I didn’t anticipate any problems. Then I’d be at the airport, and outta this place! Oh, if only…I sat at the train station for one entire hour, getting more panicked every minute that the bus didn’t show. I needed bus #1C, so of course I saw #1A come by 3 times while waiting. Which brings me to pet peeve #4: Why would you give buses going completely different routes the same number? That’s just begging for confusion. And then they treat me like an idiot when I ask if they are going to the airport. “No” the busdriver’s say in the tone of voice reserved for special people “E 1A, non 1C.” Oh, of COURSE! So sorry to bother you, signore.

At 7:20, with an hour and a half until take-off, I got desperate. I started asking cars parked by the station if they could give me a ride to the airport. I offered to pay, but was refused both times I tried. You have to love that Italian hospitality; it’s there for me every time, merrily waving its middle finger. Of course there wasn’t a taxi to be found, still. But luck was with me (or so I thought) and I spied a taxi dropping a family off at the station. I was in the taxi almost before the family got out, insisting that I would pay anything for a ride to the airport adesso. The cabbie shouted out “20 Euros”, which I would have gladly paid to make my flight, but fortunately another three people jumped in with me to share the fare. They commenced chatting away in rapid Italian, most of which I didn’t catch. I was so relieved to be making progress that I easily tuned them out and started daydreaming about the fantastic Polish meals that I knew were coming my way.

About twenty minutes later we stopped outside of a hotel. “Un momento” the driver assured us as one of the passengers hopped out and ran inside. At this point I started to get a bit agitated. “Ma sono in ritardo!” I protested clumsily. That’s when the man to my right informed me that the airport was closed anyway, so I wouldn’t be missing anything by waiting a minute. For a split second I was relieved that I wouldn’t miss another flight, but I then began to realize the implications of a closed airport. When would I be able to get out of here? I wondered.

When we pulled up to the airport, from the outside everything looked more or less normal. People were milling around, sure, but you see that at any airport. Then I stepped inside to a rendition of chaos that would make Hollywood proud. The first thing that I saw was that there were several hundred people gathered around the information desk and ticket stands, loudly demanding refunds as they pushed and shoved their way to the front of the line. I picked my way through the crowd looking for my carrier’s gate. When I finally made it to the area normally reserved for check-ins, it was a truly surreal sight that greeted me. It looked like the check-in area had been transformed into a bomb shelter. There were people passed out left and right, not just on the floor but on and behind the ticket counters, on the conveyer belts, even in the flight attendant chairs. Every available space was covered by people making themselves comfortable. This was my first clue that it was going to be a long day. I had been hoping that my flight would just be delayed by a few hours, but no such luck. The screen on the wall listed my flight as “CANCELLED” in big bold letters. I found that I had no choice: I was forced to join the throng gathered around the ticket desk, hoping to find out where to go from there.

After an hour of being pushed, shoved, battered and bruised, I finally made my way to the front. I wasn’t even sure which question to ask, I had so many, so I just gave the agent my boarding pass and looked at him questioningly. He told me that the next flight into Warsaw wasn’t for two more days, on Christmas Eve. I was devastated. There was no way I could wait that long to get to Poland. So he told me that my other option was to file for a refund. I took the sheet and retreated from the mosh pit as quickly as possible. What to do next? I had to find another flight into Warsaw, and quickly. I texted Olga to let her know what had happened, but she was unable to help as she didn’t have access to internet. I was on my own and flying completely blind. Have I mentioned that I hate going into hellish situations unprepared? I felt naked, with no idea what to do. As I sat in the airport contemplating, I overheard some women talking in Polish. I rushed over to them in the hopes that they would have a better idea of what to do than I did. It turns out that they had been on the same flight I was, and they informed me that all of the nearby flights were booked for the day. They were waiting in the same line I had just left, to take the offer for the Christmas Eve flight, and they advised me to do the same.

Crap. I sighed in resignation and rejoined the mob. This time the line was longer, as more people had arrived at the airport. Of course by the time I reached the front the flight to Warsaw was full. The agent told me that the only other flight open was to Katowice, and tickets were going fast. So I booked it, despite knowing that it would be a hellish ordeal to reach Lodz from an airport even further away. Great. The worst part was that I could have taken the Warsaw flight, but I’ve never been the quickest horse in the stable, so I have once again made life harder than it needed to be. Oh, well; there comes a point where you can only smile wryly and shake your head.

Now I needed to decide what to do for the next two days. I could return to Torino, but there wouldn’t be much point, as no one was home and it would cost me just as much to get there as to stay in a hostel for a few nights. That’s when I read the fine print on my refund slip: Wizzair was offering to pay for accommodation fees caused by the delay. Hmm… I automatically started scheming. I’m never one to let a good offer go to waste. If they were willing to compensate me, I was going to take them for all they were worth. As I considered my options, I realized that I could spend a miserable two days traveling to and from Torino, or I could take advantage of the situation and see somewhere new and exciting, staying at ridiculously expensive hotels while doing it. I chose option two, and hopped on a bus headed for Milano. I’d heard that Lake Como was gorgeous with the snow, but I hadn’t visited yet as there were no cheap hostels in the city. And here I was with a free pass! It was like a sign, and who am I to ignore advantageous signs?

However, I hit another complication when I got into Milan: Olga called and said that she had found a flight out of the Milano Malpensa airport leaving later that night that still had seats left for around 200 Euros. She left the choice up to me, as that was a significant amount of Euros. After thinking about it a minute, I decided “Screw it- I desperately want to get out of here, so I’ll take it.” Changing plans yet again, I hopped on another bus to the Malpensa airport, grimacing as I handed over another dozen euros for the bus fare. Running around like a chicken without a head was starting to add up.

When I got to this airport it looked a lot like the first: complete chaos. I wasn’t too worried, though, as I had a little over four hours until the flight was scheduled to leave. So I located the ticketing booth and took a ticket. I was impressed with the fact that there even were numbered tickets here; it went against the Italian way of ruthlessly cutting in line. Then I noticed that my number was a good 60 numbers after the current one listed. Yikes. I was hoping that the numbers wouldn’t be in order (don’t laugh- this has actually happened to me in Torino), but no luck. After sitting and watching for a few minutes I decided to explore the airport to see if I could find another ticketing agent, as this one was a general one for all of the airlines (hence the line). For about 15 minutes I wandered, stepping over people and luggage that were strewn everywhere. Unfortunately I didn’t see anything promising, so I returned to the ticket booth, hoping for a huge jump in numbers. Ever optimistic, I hurried back around the corner, only to discover that it was the exact same number as before! Oh, joyful day. I resigned myself to waiting, even though I had a feeling that the flight would be sold out when I got there. I found a seat close to the ticket window and watched the show.

It was definitely entertaining: I saw numerous Italians attempting to cut, then angrily storming off when asked for their ticket. One guy just lost it on the poor ticketing agent when she didn’t let him cut; he was shouting swear words in Italian that I’ve never even heard before. I felt sorry for the woman. How miserable would it be to work in an airport on a day like today? You couldn’t pay me enough. I did wonder why they didn’t have more people helping with issuing tickets, though. There was one woman who looked like a supervisor just standing in the back with her arms crossed. I thought, you know, you could considerably lessen the chaos here if you just stepped up and helped out a little. C’est la vie.

As anticipated, two hours later when my number was called the flight that I needed was sold out. I couldn’t help but laugh when the agent offered me a flight on Christmas Eve for “only” 250 Euros. Thank you SO much, I told her, but I’ll pass.

Well, back to the Como plan. I waded my way through the mess of humanity and into the train station to book a ticket to Como N. Lago FN. There was a transfer involved, which caused a twinge of nervousness as I don’t do well with those. But what choice did I have? I hurried onto my train. I wasn’t paying too much attention to the stops, to be honest, as I figured by the ticket prices that the transfer would be at least an hour in the making. Luckily I looked up at the right moment at one of the stops and saw that it was the one that I needed to get off at. Merde! So I gathered my things and stumbled my way off of the train just as the whistle sounded and the train set off. Again, this is one of the reasons that I like to be prepared for train travel: it’s so much easier if you know the times that you need to get off, instead of just the name. By this point I was so far beyond flustered and frazzled that I couldn’t even see them anymore. I caught a glimpse of myself in a stray mirror and groaned: my hair was one small step away from a giant dread lock, my makeup was smeared all over my face from rubbing my eyes in exasperation, and the 15 layers of clothing that I had on (more to be able to be able to close my overstuffed backpack than for warmth) made me look like a giant, frazzled-librarian style Pillsbury doughboy. Perfetto. No wonder that little girl had started crying when she saw me.

After a half-hearted attempt to scrub off my face, I boarded my last train of the day and made it into Como without further incident. Which was fortunate, as I was a hairbreadth away from snapping. It would only have taken one little thing more…one thing thrown onto the already towering pile of crap that was this day.

To my surprise, I felt a little of that long-lost exhilaration as we pulled into Como Nord. I saw the town duomo all lit up with Christmas lights and couldn’t help but feel a small tingle of excitement. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all, I thought. When I stepped off the train I immediately noticed that it was warmer here than in Milan. The snow was melting into big slushy puddles, the biggest of which I stepped right into as I walked off the train. Fantastico.
At this point I only wanted to find a hotel and crash, as the mad dashes of the day were finally getting to me. So I walked into the first Albergo that I saw, which was about a block from the train station. I asked how much one night would cost (not really caring as it was on Wizzair, but curious), and he gave me a quote for 40 Euros. Not bad, actually. It was way better than expected. So I dropped off my bag and then I decided to wander around town to find food and/or whisky. Whichever I came across first, really.

After checking out some of the ridiculously overpriced lakeside restaurants, I was about to give up. Then I spied a small hole-in-the-wall place that several people had just walked into. The crooked sign hanging over the door announced it as “Luca’s.” I could see foozeball and a few pool tables inside, so I decided to check it out. I immediately felt at home: they were playing “the Simpsons” on the wall TV, and it smelled like what can only be described as dinginess (the product of smoke and stale booze, along with some other component that I can’t define). I loved it. It reminded me of a local dive bar back in Seattle called Earl’s. That’s when it occurred to me that maybe in Italian “Luca’s” has the same connotations as “Earl’s” does in English. It’s funny how the Italian name sounds so much more graceful. Good to know that these homey places still exist on this side of the pond, though. I was getting worried.

By then I had all but given up on the idea of food and just wanted a drink. A whisky was sounding better by the minute, so I ordered one straight up. Then I looked around a little more and noticed a table full of little sandwiches and plates of vegetables; Aperitivo!! For once luck was on my side. I had walked in at just the right time for the nightly aperitivo (which is like the classy Italian-style buffet that comes with your drink). I was in heaven: I had a stiff drink and a plate full of food for only 4 euros. Good old Luca’s, ti amo!

After gorging myself and engaging in some small talk with the locals, I skipped back to my albergo and was out by 10 pm.

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009:

Today I took a long, slushy walk around the shores of Lake Como. The reviews were right: this place is amazing in the snow. I’ll bet it’s even better in the summertime when you can feel your toes, but I’ll take whatever I can get. I wandered around taking pictures like a madman. I swear, this place is like a photographer’s wet dream. I’m definitely no expert, but for some reason I kept finding myself crouching down, trying to get the best angle for my award-winning shots. I couldn’t help it; everywhere I turned looked like a postcard come to life.

The town of Como itself is something to see as well. The duomo was just as impressive during the day as it had been when it was all lit up at night. And then there was the Christmas market….you know I can never resist a good market, this being no exception. And who doesn’t need a life-sized stuffed Santa Claus? I’m sure it’ll come in handy some day, you’ll see.

Well, the fun is over and now I’m off to Bergamo to spend my final night there before flying to Poland at 8am. Hopefully I’ll have better luck in round two.

Thursday, December 24, 2009 (Christmas Eve):

Merry freakin’ Christmas! I feel like the Bergamo airport staff all have hearts of stone. As did the policeman checking tickets on the train last night…he gave me a ticket for an honest mistake! Ok, so it wasn’t entirely honest. I had bought a train ticket from Milan to Como and then never used it, so I wanted to use it to get from Como to Bergamo, but the policeman didn’t see my way at all. I tried to use the fact that it was the same price to win him over, then when that failed I pulled the Christmas card, but he simply would not listen to reason. Oh, well. One more thing to put in the old scrapbook. It’s not my first ticket in a foreign country, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

So apparently the Wizzair flight restrictions are even more strict than Ryanair, which was a shock to me as I thought you couldn’t get any more anal than that. Proven wrong yet again. They made me weigh my carry-on, then when it was 3 measly kilos over the limit the flight attendant told me I had to check the bag or leave it behind. Sure, I thought, I’ll just leave my $900 laptop here with you, why not? I explained that I couldn’t check the bag, as it had my computer in it. I tried once more to use the “but it’s Christmas Eve” card, but it fell on deaf ears. Hearts of stone! 3 kilos? Come on now. I was eventually forced to take out my laptop and check my backback, after being warned that I was only allowed one carry-on item so I would have to fit everything in the laptop case. “Sure, no problem,” I ground out sarcastically between clenched teeth. I usually try to be extra pleasant to people in the customer service field, as I’ve been in their shoes a time or two, but sometimes it’s a strain just to remain civil.

Instead of stuffing my purse into my tiny laptop case, I thought I’d be extra cunning and hide it under my jacket, thus passing it off as just another stomach roll. I thought it looked pretty convincing, up until I spied myself in the mirror. It looked exactly like what it was: a girl trying to smuggle in her contraband purse. I briefly considered putting it over my stomach and going for three months pregnant, but decided that it wouldn’t be worth the bad karma points earned.

It was all very ridiculous, especially as the total amount of my carry-on was now a lot smaller than the allowed amount. Does it really matter if it’s in one piece or two? I wasn’t taking any chances with these retentive discount carriers, though, so I stuffed like there was no tomorrow. I got a few strange looks in the bathroom, but what can you do? In the end I made it through without detection, although I’m not entirely sure how. I think the flight attendants were just in too much of a hurry, as I’m sure they would have liked nothing more than to make my life a little more hellish today. No, that’s not fair; I’m sure they’re just doing their jobs. Although I did get the distinct impression that Wizzair has it in for me.

The flight didn’t start boarding until after the scheduled take-off time, so I had no hope of making it into Katowice on time either. I was so relieved to finally be on the damn plane that I didn’t really care about the delays. The pilot tried to assure us that the winds were favorable, so we should still make it without too much delay, but we later discovered that he had made a slight miscalculation with those wind patterns. As we started to descend, suddenly the plane jerked back upward and the pilot laid on the gas pedal. Apparently he had been faking us out with the “prepare for arrival” announcement. A few minutes later he announced that we were circling the airport, waiting for the winds to change to a better direction. I recalled his “favorable winds” comment earlier with a smirk. It looks like I’m not the only one who can summon bad karma with one sentence.

Have you ever gotten the feeling that the entire cosmos is focused on preventing you from getting somewhere? I was starting to notice a pattern in all of this. How many more signs could there be telling me not to go to Poland? I glared at the sky and thought “Too bad! I’m going even if it kills me!” and then I hurriedly looked for some wood to knock on. Superstition may be regarded as silly, but I always feel that it’s better to error on the side of paranoia than not.

So now here I am on the last leg of my trip to Poland, in a cute wooden cabin car in a rickety old train. I was mildly scared for my life for a bit there at the train station, but managed to avoid any major incidents. The station was the kind of place that I wouldn’t want to be in after dark. It was only noon and I saw at least 3 disheveled drunk men stumbling around. One of them tried to sit on a bench next to me but missed and sat on the floor instead. I feel you, buddy, I thought. Then I got up and hurriedly walked away. Note to self: avoid troppo Polish vodka.

Now I have only two more hours until my stop at Koluszki, where Olga will pick me up and take me to her home sweet home. Oh, I can’t even describe how excited I am to finally be here. Three days of complete and utter hell have led to this moment. I can only hope that the end was worth the means....

No comments:

Post a Comment